The summer of 2013 was a whirlwind for Jaci and me. We had taken two amazing academic trips the previous summers to Turkey and Israel, and we wanted to continue our stretch of traveling during the Summer. So, we decided that we would take a more low-key trip to London, Paris, and meet up with friends in Switzerland. What made the trip even more memorable was that it was something of a “baby-moon” for us, because Jaci was pregnant with our first child, Desmond. We hopped the pond full of joy for the opportunity to enjoy one last soiree before parenthood and with a greater sense of expectation for the arrival of our first born.
The two weeks in Europe were a wonderful time, and we did a lot of the normal vacation-y things – we ate too much, we saw a couple of live shows in London, we saw a TON of beautiful historical sites, we went to the museums (I’m a nerd, so that was my thing), we navigated our first real use of Airbnb, etc. And, of course, it was all planned around the inevitable need of my wife’s pregnant body to crash hard around 3p.m. So, knowing that we needed to be back to our rented room in time for my wife to take a nap, we decided, one misty English day, to take the entire morning to visit St. Paul’s church in London.
Now, there are too many (and mostly boring) things one could drone on about when talking about St. Paul’s. And, like I said, I’m a nerd, so I could easily fill this post with random factoids I learned on my tour of the monstrous building. However, one kind of mundane thing occurred that has actually had a lasting impact on my family’s spiritual walk during Advent. That thing is that the gift shop was having a Christmas sale in the Summer! Apparently, the middle of July is the best time to visit St. Paul’s to stock up on Advent necessities.
As we perused the random oddities of mostly stale English religious items, I noticed a small box of ornate cream colored taper candles. Normally, I would simply and eagerly pass by such obvious tchotchkes, but I picked it up because I realized that it had numbers on the side that coordinated with the days of Advent. In truth, the candle counted down from December 1st, but Advent begins on the Sunday closest to the Feast of St. Andrew, which is on Nov. 30th. So this year, for example, Advent will actually begin on Nov. 27th.
Growing up, my family bounced around denominations, but my strongest connection to a church tradition was Conservative Baptist. And, though this is not universally true of all Conservative Baptists, in my particular church culture an attitude of anti-legalism and iconoclasm was paramount. Such leanings were often taken to (in my mind) unhealthy extremes. For example, anything that smacked of liturgy or had something to do with any sort of object in the act of worship was more than shunned, it was considered heresy. So, simply the idea of participating in Advent was a mostly foreign idea in my spiritual walk, let alone using an object like a candle to aid in my daily spiritual walk during the season.
In my adulthood, however, I softened to the idea that such things as liturgy, prepared prayers, and certain objects can help focus a mind for worship and coordinate a community’s hearts and minds around a central subject. So, I decided to get a couple of the decorative candles from St. Paul’s to see if I could incorporate them into my fledgling practice of the Advent Season.
When we returned home from our European vacation, I began looking into how to employ these candles, but couldn’t actually find any traditional way for them to be used nor any liturgical, symbolic, or theological standard for thinking about them (if you know of something, please comment). My best guess is that they were simply meant as festive, decorative items for the Anglican home. So, what I decided to do was create my own tradition for Advent using the candles. I found a Lutheran based daily Advent liturgy, and adapted/expanded it for my family’s particular theology. You will find this resource attached.
In the years since we bought the candles, we have had to create our own candles (I only bought two), and the process looks something like this:
- I measure the candle out into quarters, and I mark the bottom quarter out. My family likes to let the candle burn out on Christmas Eve. So, it is nice to reserve the last quarter for this purpose.
- Then, I take the length of the remaining three quarters and divide it by twenty three – one for each day beginning on Dec. 1st. It is easiest to do this in millimeters as you can just make a straight division without having to work with fractions of inches, which can get confusing.
- As I mentioned, Advent doesn’t always coincide with Dec. 1. So, feel free to adjust your measurements for the true beginning. The liturgy I have attached begins on Dec. 1, and we like to start there.
- Then I mark out the measurement for each of the remaining 23 days (remember the last quarter is for Christmas Eve). One could find a decorative pen that writes on the wax, make clear notches in the wax, or she could even use a crude sharpie, if she didn’t care about the look of it.
- Every night, we read the appointed liturgy and/or scripture and let the candle burn down until it reaches the top of the next day’s marking. We like to do this before a meal or right before our kids start getting ready for bed. If you have a bedtime devotional with your kids, this is a perfect way to start it off.
For us, the practice of the Advent candle has given our family a sense of intentionality in what often otherwise can turn into a season of being “too busy;” a season of excuses; a season too readily focused on materialism; a season devoid of true meaning and which is steeped only in cultural and secular representations of festive cheer. For both my wife and me, the practice also reminds us of a time when we ourselves were in a season of expectation as we awaited the birth of our son. The candle reminds us of a time when the world awaited the birth of its Messiah. This reminder of how we felt in anticipation of our son’s new life also brings us closer in worship to the reality that we ever anticipate another Advent – the return of our Lord to make anew this broken creation.
In addition, the flame, like the star atop our tree, on the one hand brings to life the story of the magi following the star to Bethlehem. When I see the flame, in fact, I can often even imagine a torrent of spiritual light at once resting on the place of the child and also brashly invading our earthly reality. On the other hand, the light of the candle reminds us of the burning flame of the Holy Spirit who is yet ever present and indwelling in us even now, even while we await return of Christ and the consummation of his Kingdom.
DeHarte Advent Liturgy.docx